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An ongoing programme aimed at modernising the justice system in the UK may exclude the most vulnerable users, a report has found.
The Commons Select Committee report on Court and Tribunal reforms has warned that the digital transformation around how services are delivered could leave some people without access to the legal advice they need.
Led by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and senior judges, the modernisation plan wants to drive sweeping changes in the system through the upgrade of court processes, including the introduction of more video hearings.
While modernisation is expected to drive efficiencies for those who can access the upgraded services, as well as taxpayer savings, the Justice Committee warned that such modernisation could shut off justice for those who might be left behind. The report expressed concerns that those with limited access to computers, poor literacy or limited law understanding could face issues around, for example, managing a divorce, seeking fair payment, or getting through family and criminal cases.
“We understand and support the principle that modernisation is overdue,” said committee chair Bob Neill MP. “But we ask the government to pause for breath to make sure that every one of us who needs the court system is able to get to court, to access justice, where and when they need to.”
Address barriers to justice
While acknowledging the success HM Courts and Tribunals (HMCTS) has had so far in developing some user-friendly digital processes, the report voiced concerns over accessibility and indicated potential barriers to access to justice, even for users who have good digital skills. It also presented risks to fairness around entering pleas online in criminal cases.
“HMCTS clearly has some way to go in reassuring stakeholders that barriers to accessing digital justice are being addressed,” the report noted, adding that during its probe into the modernisation of the justice system, the committee heard comments on low rates of internet usage and poor digital skills, as well as literacy barriers and other disadvantages faced by particular groups, such as lack of private access to computers to do legal work.
Bob Neill, Justice Committee
To address these concerns, the committee called for the maintenance of face-to-face advice for those who need it, as well as paper-based processes for those without access to phones or the internet.
The report cited insights from a pilot HMCTS is running with social change charity Good Things Foundation around assisted digital support, a process designed for a “relatively small group” who want to use digital services but for whom phone advice and support is not enough.
It noted that the experience gained so far indicates that uptake of assisted digital services is low and more could be done to encourage more citizens to use it, such as extending online centres and making it easier for people to get advice. The report noted that some people need assisted digital support even when they use the internet in their daily life “because the stakes are high when interacting with government services”.
In addition, the report argued that was time for court buildings to be improved and repaired, particularly for disabled court users. It also noted that even for those able to use the buildings, the current video equipment and Wi-Fi in place could not be relied on to serve justice.
The report also advised the MoJ to think about the time it takes for victims and witnesses to get to and from and attend trials. The current timescales can currently reach up to 12 hours a day.
A report from the National Audit Office released in September 2019 found that the justice system transformation has had to review its “ambitious” initial aims and reduce the initial scope, despite making some progress.
Focus on the user
In a blog post published at the same time the latest Justice Committee’s report was released, the MoJ’s chief digital information officer (CDIO), Tom Read, argued that the department’s strategy was “not about blockchain, robotic process automation, or going paperless”.
“Digital transformation is designing services based on user needs, making it easier for the citizen to do what they need to do, and cheaper for the government to provide their services,” he wrote. “What might uncharitably be called hype tech has its place, but not until everything works.”
In his summary of the MoJ’s digital plan, Read stated that the plan’s initial goal was to “fix the basics” with the introduction of new hardware and software, and make things more efficient by automating basic tasks.
Tom Read, MoJ
According to Read, after the MoJ achieves these two objectives, it will aim for “whole system thinking” which prioritises users.
“We will be Blockbuster with efficient self-service VCR rental stores, missing that no one wants to consume content that way anymore,” Read noted. “In our world, this means designing services where the needs of the user and the policy outcome are well understood before anything else is attempted. It means looking outside of the silo of our own department and connecting our data right across the government to provide a holistic and seamless service to the user.”
According to Read, such intentions also include helping people get access to the legal support they need to address complex life issues.
“Simply building a support portal won’t work as we need to first understand that people don’t categorise their life problems according to different categories of law, and it often cuts across several areas,” he argued. “These users are at their most vulnerable, and we should not expect them to understand how government is structured to get the help they need.”
To avoid being hampered by “governance and processes designed for an analogue age”, the CDIO said the MoJ would promote work in partnership with functions, including commercial and finance, and that it would “get nothing done without focusing hard” on people.
The MoJ’s intentions to build a diverse and inclusive team support the modernisation goals, according to Read, who noted that the department wants to establish “strong digital professions” based on the Government Digital Service’s digital, data and technology capability framework.
The IT chief added that some 150 new staff had been hired, but the plan was to hire a lot more.
“We are making sure that we recruit a group of people who properly represent the fantastically diverse nature of our society,” he noted. “We cannot hope to build digital services for the most vulnerable people in society if we are all middle-class white men.”
Read more about IT in the justice system
- The MoJ’s CDIO, Tom Read, is keen on doing his bit to tear down the Whitehall silos, creating collaborative, simple and effective digital services for staff and the public.
- MoJ to go all-in on public cloud as infrastructure modernisation push gathers pace.
- Digital court system reaches first key milestones, having increased speed and efficiency of online citizen services and saved 100 million sheets of paper so far.